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In the name of progress: Vietnam

December 12, 2016 Written by a HealthBridge guest blogger Cars, Cities, Livable Cities, Public Spaces, Socializing, Urban Planning, Vietnam, Walking Post a comment!

A Hanoi street cafe. 

By Sian FitzGerald, HealthBridge Executive Director

I have witnessed an amazing phenomenon in my short life – the rapid development of a country, not so long ago called “the last jewel of Asia”. The country is Vietnam. When I first visited this beautiful land, in 1992, I was totally seduced by the capital city Hanoi and its people. The seduction was so complete that I moved there in 1993. 

I remember only one traffic light in the center of the city, at the crossroads of the Hoa Binh hotel. I remember only one foreign-owned hotel, the Sofitel Metropole, built by the French during the colonial years. Bicycles ruled the roads, which were shared with relatively few vehicles, mostly military or government owned, and public buses. Cyclos were the favoured means of public transport in the city center, used by locals for daily chores and commuting, and of course by the few adventurous tourists who ventured into this country that was considered closed to the outside world. 

Hard life in the 'jewel of Asia'

Vietnam then was called “the last jewel of Asia” because it hadn’t yet been impacted by foreign investment, a market economy, and car-centric development. Of course while it was charming to visit, life was hard for the people, it was difficult to make a decent wage, there was little freedom of movement, and few opportunities. Even as an expatriate living in the country my movement was limited and strictly controlled. I was obliged to live in a “compound” where other foreigners lived, not integrated into the Vietnamese community, and my comings and goings were closely monitored. 

There was a movement among the expatriates in Hanoi to preserve the beauty and innocence of this most charming town, while welcoming economic development and the improvement of living standards. I was excited to be part of the movement, believing that it might actually be possible, as the country opened its doors to the free market. I moved into a local neighborhood in the city center, I felt part of the community, and I enjoyed the excitement of a country entering a major transition, a sort of “coming of age” in the global world. My younger colleagues were bursting with a desire to explore and blossom, while my older colleagues feared what might come through the newly opened society. There was an expression that the government used to promote the new openness to the world: “we open the windows but keep the screens closed, in order to let in the good of an open market but keep out the evils of capitalism”. 

Accelerating what?

Many changes came to Vietnam after 1993, quickly. As incomes increased and protectionism decreased import taxes, for example, motorcycles started to replace bicycles. The Honda Dream II became a status symbol – previously available only to the specially privileged, it became a standard household commodity. Over the years the moto was replaced by the car, and “might” became “right” on the roads. The bigger the vehicle, the more power you could exercise. Roads became congested, traffic lights were installed, accidents increased. And the fortunate few individuals experienced an improved standard of living. In fact, per capita income in Vietnam has risen from under US$1,000 in 1990 to almost $6,000 in 2015. 

As cars took over the roads, bicycles were pushed out, and cyclos were banned from some of the most picturesque parts of the old quarter. These roads were never built for cars, and there is no room for them, but never mind. You can’t begrudge someone for wanting to own a car. Narrow sidewalks in the old quarter became parking lots for motos, and on the wider avenues in the French quarter, they have become parking lots for cars. Cyclists and pedestrians have been literally squeezed out. Crossing the road has become a high risk sport, not for the faint of heart. Do the Vietnamese notice this loss of their own public spaces? I am not sure; climbing out of poverty is probably more pressing. 

Businesses flourished – restaurants, shops, hotels, spas. Tourists flooded in, responding to the sudden opening of one of the last protected cultures, curious and open minded. Tour companies sprouted as quickly as dandelions in the spring after a harsh winter. “Can I practice my English?” became one of the most frequently spoken phrases around Hoan Kiem Lake, a place tourists still go to walk ‘traffic-free’. Air pollution has become oppressive, pedestrian injuries a daily occurrence. Do residents notice these changes? I’m not sure, but year after year as I continue to be seduced by this country and its people, I notice the changes all too poignantly. 

Car-free weekends at Hoan Kiem Lake

Late 2016, and the circle of development may be starting to loop back to a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle. Maybe. The most iconic of places in Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake, is surrounded by a 3 or 4-lane road. This road has become car-free on weekends – What a celebration!  The community around the lake is thriving all weekend long, with families, children, lovers, and yes, tourists too. But the overwhelming feeling around the lake is that of local community, something that was felt all over the city way back when. There are certain streets in the old quarter that are also closing to cars – these streets were never built for cars in the first place, and so welcome is the ability of the people living on those streets to be able to claim back their public space. For life is lived on the streets in Hanoi, but for the last 20 years cars have been pushing people off their streets.  

There are many great things about economic development, which are felt more keenly in Vietnam by the previously poor Vietnamese than by me, a visitor. And there are many not so good things that I hope the tides of change will turn back in time. In the name of economic development, people have become wealthier and have new opportunities, but at the same time people have lost many of their public spaces, they can’t cycle or walk safely anymore, the air they breathe is almost toxic, the foods they eat include unhealthy convenience foods. In the name of progress, we can only hope to see the return of public spaces for everyone, safe walking and cycling, easy access to healthy foods. I, for one, am hoping for the return of the cyclo to Hoan Kiem Lake, and dare I hope for a car-free old quarter?!

Learn more: See what HealthBridge is doing to make life in Vietnam more livable

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